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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Barrier island and other coastal landforms

Barrier islands, a coastal landform and a type of barrier system, are relatively narrow strips of sand that parallel the mainland coast. They usually occur in chains, consisting of a few islands or more than a dozen. Excepting the tidal inlets that separate the islands, a barrier chain may extend uninterrupted for over a hundred kilometers. The length and width of barriers and overall morphology of barrier coasts are related to parameters including tidal range, wave energy, sediment supply, sea-level trends and basement controls.[1]

Chains of barrier islands can be found along the world's coastlines of different settings, suggesting that they can form and be maintained in a variety of environmental settings. Numerous theories have been given to explain their formations.



The Mississippi-Alabama barrier islands guarding Mobile Bay and Mississippi Sound.

Explanations for the development of barrier islands have been proposed by numerous scientists over more than 150 years. They can be grouped into three major theories: offshore bar theory, spit accretion theory and submergence theory.[1] No single theory can explain the development of all barriers distributed extensively along the world's coastlines. Scientists accept the idea that barriers, including other barrier types, can form by a number of different mechanisms.[2]


Offshore bar theory

One of the earliest ideas to explain barrier island formation was published in 1845 by the Frenchman Elie de Beaumont. He believed that waves moving into shallow water churned up sand, which was deposited in the form of a submarine bar when the waves broke and lost much of their energy. As the bars accreted vertically, they gradually built above sea level, forming barrier islands.

Spit accretion theory

American geologist Grove Karl Gilbert first argued in 1885 the barrier sediments came from alongshore sources. He proposed that sediment moving in the breaker zone through agitation by waves in longshore drift would construct spits extending from headlands parallel to the coast. The subsequent breaching of spits by storm waves would form barrier islands.[3]

Submergence theory

Isles Dernieres in 1853 and 1978. Wave action detaches Isles Dernieres from the mainland.

William John McGee reasoned in 1890 that the East and Gulf coasts of the United States were undergoing submergence, as evidenced by the many drowned river valleys that occur along these coasts, including Raritan, Delaware and Chesapeake Bays. He believed that during submergence coastal ridges were separated from the mainland, forming lagoons behind the ridges.[4] He used the Mississippi-Alabama barrier islands (consists of Cat, Ship, Horn, Petit Bois and Dauphin Islands) as an example where coastal submergence formed barrier islands, but his interpretation was later shown to be incorrect as the coastal stratigraphy and sediment ages were more accurately determined.[5]

Along the coast of Louisiana former lobes of the Mississippi River delta have been reworked by wave action, forming beach ridge complexes. Prolonged sinking of the marshes behind the barriers has converted these former vegetated wetlands to open-water areas. In a period of 125 years, from 1853 to 1978, two small semi-protected bays behind the barrier had been transforming to the large water body of Lake Pelto, leading to Isles Dernieres's detachment from the mainland.[2]


  1. ^ a b Davis Jr., p. 144
  2. ^ a b Davis Jr., p. 147
  3. ^ Davis Jr., pp. 144-145
  4. ^ Davis Jr., p. 145
  5. ^ Morton, p. 2



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